After escaping persecution by the Nazis in her native Austria, Stella Mann founded one of Britain’s best-known dance schools. Over the years, hundreds of dancers have perfected their skills at her school, with many of them going on to perform all over the world.
Despite the traumas of losing both of her Jewish parents in a concentration camp and her sister in a car crash, she lived to be a great age. At a party to celebrate her 100th birthday, she found it in her heart to say: “I am so lucky.”
At the age of ten, Mann took dancing lessons from her uncle, a professional teacher. Aged 15, she joined the studio of the pioneer of expressionist modern dance, Gertrud Kraus. When she was 17, she was herself teaching modern dance. By 1938, she had her own school in Vienna, attended by some 500 pupils. But, in that same year, Hitler’s forces occupied Austria and she escaped to Brussels. When Belgium was occupied too, she managed to cross into France and spent two years evading the Nazis while secretly helping out at a centre sheltering orphaned Jewish children.
In 1944, she met a talented ballroom dancer, Derrick Ashby-Mott. Two years later, they married and moved to England, establishing the House on the Hill dance school in Hampstead and later the Stella Mann College of Performing Arts in Finchley. Ten years ago, the college moved to a building in Bedford, previously occupied by Middlesex University. It provides training in dance and musical theatre, concentrating on classical ballet, tap, jazz and contemporary dance, as well as singing and drama.
By then, however, Mann had sold the school and retired to Majorca, where she took up painting and learned to play the castanets. After Ashby-Mott died, she returned to London and moved into old people’s accommodation in Finchley, where her centennial party was held, attracting former pupils from all over the world.
Towards the end of her long life, she returned to Vienna to be presented with Austria’s Decoration of Merit in Gold. Carolyn Naish, who knew Mann for more than 40 years and who had taught at the school, paid tribute to her: “She had total commitment to dance and she believed it could change people. Stella understood the enormous marriage between dance and music and how important it is for all dancers to have that innate feeling for music.”
Stella Mann, who was born Stella Tuttman on January 24, 1912, died on January 5, less than three weeks before her 101st birthday.
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